23 March 2022

Empowering Human Capital Towards Economic Growth

By Dr Muhammad Rafiq Mirza bin Julaihi

Sarawak is rich in natural resources and arable land. As such, we need a realistic strategy to become a successful exporter of high-value products and resources.

We have no choice but to explore and research new materials. These materials may only be available in Sarawak or Borneo Island, although we might have overlooked them due to the prioritisation of logging and palm oil plantations. To achieve the discovery of new and novel materials that we can claim as “Made in Sarawak”, cooperation between the industry and institutions of higher learning is needed. This is to search for and to discover the potential raw materials that can be investigated and developed further.

Sarawak is abundant with natural wood resources that can be researched to birth a new composite materials industry. For example, the McLaren Formula One (F1) team fabricated their drivers’ seats out of flaxseed fibre to meet the sustainability aims of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in motorsports events. Whereas here, flaxseed is more commonly consumed as a food supplement in our daily life. Our Sarawak has a high potential to obtain and produce such high-performance composite materials. By doing so, we could claim those innovations as truly being “Made in Sarawak”.

In order to have a strong driving force to discover such new materials, people must have a strong educational foundation. One way is to provide tertiary or higher education past compulsory schooling in elementary and secondary school. Each major city now has at least one university, such as Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), Universiti Teknologi MARA (UITM), and Swinburne Sarawak in Kuching; Universiti Teknologi Sarawak (UTS) in Sibu; Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) branch campus in Bintulu; and Curtin Sarawak in Miri. For higher education at the diploma level, polytechnics exist for the purpose of training skilled graduates.

Borneo island as a whole will become a major population centre and industrial zone. In recent news, Indonesia has planned to move their capital city to Kalimantan. Numerous infrastructure projects and initiatives were planned to realise the development of the new capital city, and Kalimantan in general.

Sarawak should not miss the opportunity to further advance, otherwise, we will miss out on the resulting economic development caused by Kalimantan’s industrialisation. Attracting local and foreign investors to put their money in Sarawak is a major challenge for advancement. The government has initiated actions such as opening the Sama Jaya Free Industrial Zone in Kuching, Samalaju Industrial Park in Bintulu, and the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE).

One way to pull investors in is to provide sustainable and reliable public transportation. This is to facilitate the movement of people and freight to and from their workplaces. Ideally, this would mean having shipping port to industrial zone rail connections for freight, with light rail transport or buses plying the city routes for transporting people. Providing public infrastructure and facilities will benefit Sarawak immensely. First, the construction, operation, and maintenance of those facilities will need the capabilities of the industry to construct and maintain them. Meanwhile, a skilled and competent workforce is needed to operate and work in those facilities. At the same time, the economic benefits of having these infrastructures would be meaningful with the increase in minimum wage. An increase in minimum wage will cause the overall standard of living to increase by allowing people to have more disposable income to spend.

The government has to look long-term to ensure the sustainability and longevity of our industries. To date, Malaysia is moving towards the endemic phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a post-pandemic plan has to be drafted with priority on our workforce rehiring. The purpose is to rehire the workers in certain sectors that were laid off or quit as a result of the pandemic. These workers still retain their expertise, experience, and competencies. Since more and more economic sectors have begun to open up, the government has to prioritise the rehiring of these workers back into the industry that they worked in previously. The policies introduced by the government will not be meaningful without the people’s participation. There are some actions that we can do to accomplish this participation.

We have to familiarise ourselves with the legal system and government policies by following Parliament sessions, reading reports such as the Malaysia National Plan, and reading local and international news and current affairs. Apart from that, we can contact our members of Parliament that govern our respective constituencies. By doing that through the proper channels, we can express our opinions based on our observations and give suggestions to improve the much-needed facilities in our areas.

Learning new skills and upskilling ourselves will increase our value as a skilled workforce. We can join professional certification courses such as welding, electrician, chargeman, drone pilot, and materials corrosion protection. These courses are provided by the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), polytechnics, and private entities that are accredited and certified to train professional workers. It could be a viable education route as well as enrolling in undergraduate courses at universities since the industry needs not only workers with academic certifications but also professional and competent candidates.

At the same time, the industry must cooperate with institutions of higher learning to scout for skilled workforce candidates. This can be achieved by funding research and development activities as well as headhunting candidates by meeting students at their institutions. In fact, such headhunting methods are applied in Japan and South Korea, and it is time for our industry to adopt such action. As it is important for our young students to have a channel to prove themselves, the industry can approach them as well.

Dr Muhammad Rafiq Mirza bin Julaihi is a lecturer with the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Science. Dr Rafiq can be contacted at mjulaihi@swinburne.edu.my.